A dead humpback whale washed ashore on the New Jersey coast Saturday night, marking the latest whale death in an unusual mortality event that has resulted in hundreds of fatalities on the East Coast since 2016—a problem scientists have blamed partly on ships and fishing nets.
The whale that washed ashore in Long Branch—about 30 miles south of Manhattan—was at least the ninth humpback to wash up in New Jersey this year, the most in a single year dating back to 2002, according to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center (federal officials listed just seven strandings as of Friday).
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center is working to collect information about the whale—like measurements and biological samples to see if they can determine a case of death—through a necropsy.
Witnesses from the beach told Patch New Jersey that the dead humpback at Takanassee Beach was small and appeared to be a baby or juvenile.
29. That’s how many humpback whales had gotten stranded along the East Coast this year as of Friday, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. New Jersey has recorded the most of any coastal state, with seven—eight including Saturday’s—followed by Virginia, New York and Massachusetts, which had all recorded six as of Friday.
Humpback whale populations have rebounded in recent decades following the death of the whaling industry. But the massive mammals still appear to face threats from humans: From 2016 to June 2023, about 200 humpback whale deaths were recorded on the East Coast as part of an “unusual mortality event” declared by the NOAA. It and the Marine Mammal Stranding Center have both said it’s unclear why deaths have increased, but about 90 of the deceased whales have been examined to determine cause of death, and about 40% “had evidence of human interaction, either ship strike or entanglement.” NOAA says vessel strikes or entanglement in fishing gear are the biggest human threats to larger whales. NOAA declared the unusual mortality event—defined by the government as an unexpected stranding that “involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population and demands immediate response”—for humpback whale strandings from Maine to Florida in 2017, though it retroactively included whale deaths in 2016.
Since 1991, 72 marine mammal unusual mortality events have occurred, five of which are active now and three of which are for whales. The most recent closed UME was in 2019 and looked at deaths of bottlenose dolphins in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, Florida Panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. In that event, 337 dolphins died of what was determined to be ecological factors. Meanwhile, scientists on the West Coast warn their whale populations are also at risk due to collisions with megaships, causing regulators to urge shipping lines to slow down traffic in areas frequented by humpbacks.
Some people speculate the increase in whale deaths is tied to the noise of offshore wind energy development, though NOAA and the Stranding Center have both said there’s no scientific evidence of that. NOAA has said that while the sounds “might disturb a marine mammal’s behavior,” the sounds would have lower levels and shorter duration, which are tied to less severe impacts.
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